Colton Bans Council From Appointing Kin To City Commissions

COLTON—(December 8) In the immediate aftermath of Frank Gonzales’s departure from the Colton City Council, the newly composed council last week enacted a host of ethics reforms that included a nepotism prohibition to prevent the council from appointing family members to city commissions.
Many Colton residents, and even Gonzales himself, saw in that action a slap at Gonzales, who over the course of all of or portions of six decades, two centuries and two millennia proved himself to be the most formidable political force in Colton.
Gonzales was first elected to the city council in 1966, the first of nine elections that he won. In all, he would run for office eleven times. Of the nine elections he won, six were for mayor and three were for city council. He was reelected to the city council in 1970. In 1974, he ran, successfully, for mayor. Every four years thereafter for the next four terms – 1978, 1983, 1986, and 1990, Gonzales was reelected mayor.
Along the way, he had developed a dependable political rivalry with another established Colton politician, councilman Abe Beltran. Gonzales consistently bettered Beltran at the polls in those mayoral races, even as he served on the same council with Beltran for nearly two decades. Both had achieved prominence in Colton, a blue collar city where, long before most other cities in Southern California, the dormant Hispanic political giant had awoken.
But in 1994, George Fulp, a bombastic demagogue from Cleveland, Ohio who was a regional representative of Domino’s Pizza living in Reche Canyon who had run and lost numerous times for a position on the Colton school board, challenged Gonzales. In doing so, Fulp counted upon Beltran making his standard run for mayor. Beltran did not disappoint. Fulp shrewdly convinced another Colton resident, Jesse Valdivia, to run for mayor as well, inducing Valdivia to toss his hat in the ring by buying him a pickup truck. Fulp’s stratagem worked. With three Latino candidates on the ballot, the city’s Hispanic vote was fragmented just enough for Fulp to eke out a razor-thin victory over Gonzales, who finished in second place.
That was seemingly the end of Gonzales’s political career. But it came, in a very real way, at a fortuitous time for Gonzales. The Colton mayor’s post from that point on seemed to have some sort of curse on it. Fulp, already in the throes of alcoholism when he won the seat, slid further into a besotted state. As the seeming king of Colton, he would on a regular basis drink himself into intoxication, spray himself with cologne to mask the tell-tale odor of his inebriation and drive around Colton in his Cadillac without fear of being arrested for driving under the influence, given his station as the city’s mayor and the authority that implied over the police department.  His alcohol-fueled tirades, with residents on the street as well as at the city’s council meetings, began to wear thin on the city’s electorate and even many of his former political supporters. Two years after his election, he was ignominiously recalled from office.
Fulp, most certainly inadvertently, had saved Gonzales from himself and what was likely an untoward fate and the curse that had seemingly descended on the office of Colton mayor. In the same 1994 election that had sent Gonzales toward the door and pulled Fulp into office, Dennis Stout had been elected district attorney. Stout and the man he had appointed assistant district attorney, Dan Lough, came into office with an agenda to prosecute politicians in the county they considered corrupt. On that list were San Bernardino council members Ralph Hernandez and Valerie Pope-Ludlum and Colton politicians Abe Beltran and Frank Gonzales. As fate would have it, Gonzales dropped off Stout and Lough’s radar screen by virtue of the fact that he had failed to achieve reelection. But Hernandez, Pope-Ludlum and Beltran were not so fortunate; indeed, Stout and Lough would prosecute or otherwise hound all three out of office. In the case of Beltran, Stout detailed a then-up and coming prosecutor in his office, Mike Ramos, to go after him. Beltran was charged with corruption in office in 1996, just as the election that year was approaching. As a result, Beltran was defeated by Kelly Chastasin.
Fulp was succeeded by Karl Gaytan, Gaytan was forced from office along with two other sitting Colton council members, James Grimsby and Don Sanders, when he, Sanders, Grimsby and Beltran were named in a federal indictment relating to their having received bribes for voting to allow a company to  place billboards along the I-10 Freeway.   Gaytan was succeeded as mayor by Betty Cook, who suffered a stroke within days of being chosen as mayor and died shortly thereafter. Cook was succeed by councilwoman Deirdre Bennett, who invited her council ally Kelly Chastain to oppose her in her run for mayor as a ploy to ward off any other candidates. Chastain, in a development that shocked her as much as anyone, won that election. Chastain’s victory resulted in a major break with Bennett, who two years later made a political return as a council member, in which role she became a major opponent/rival to the mayor. Chastain’s mayoralty was marred in large measure by fiscal challenges facing the city, which was worsened by the economic downturn/recession of 2007. To avoid bankruptcy, the city was obliged to engage in massive layoffs in 2009 and 2010. Consequently, one of those forced to leave the city, community development director David Zamora, opposed Chastain in the 2010 election. In that election, Chastain was chased from office. Elected the same day as Zamora, after a political absence of 16 years, was Frank Gonzales, this time as a councilman. The following year, the curse on the Colton mayoralty continued when the 56-year-old Zamora had a heart attack while driving home from City Hall for lunch. He suffered massive injuries in the resultant accident and died a few hours later.  He was succeeded by his wife, Sarah, who was chosen by the city council during a fit of mourning over her husband.  This year, she chose not to seek reelection when Gonzales announced his intention to run for mayor. In that election, Gonzales was opposed by former councilman Richard DeLa Rosa, who handily beat him, after every sitting member of the city council refused to endorse Gonzales and instead backed DeLaRosa.
While Gonzales was supported and admired by a portion of the Colton electorate, his 32 years in office in many ways had begun catch up with him.
One of the issues which Stout and Lough  had intended to pursue back in the mid-1990s were reports of political patronage, cronyism and out-and-out quid-pro-quos at Colton City Hall, including reports that individuals had been rewarded with municipal posts in exchange for political support when Gonzales had been mayor. This was backed with reports that an overwhelming number of Colton municipal employees were Gonzales’s family members. One report, perhaps apocryphal or anecdotal, was that 32 of the city’s employees were blood relations of Gonzales, his wife or were otherwise one of his in-laws.  That report had never been substantiated with any documentation. Nevertheless, the city appeared to be suffering from a reputation that held the quality of city employees had been compromised by nepotism. That stigma was greatly attenuated by Gonzales’s 16-year absence from the council, but upon his election as councilman in 2010, the insinuations resumed.
While Gonzales remained in office and as he campaigned for mayor earlier this year, the issue did not get much play officially. But in lighting quick action after Gonzales rode off into Colton’s political sunset, an ethics reform measure was brought before the city council on December 2.
Ironically, DeLaRosa was one of the newly constituted council’s members who opposed it. Also voting against it was councilman Isaac Suchil and, of note, newly-elected councilwoman Summer Zamora Jorrin, the daughter of David Zamora and Sarah Zamora.
Summer Zamora Jorrin had served, while her mother was mayor, on the Colton Recreation and Parks Commission. She noted that had the anti-nepotism restriction been in place previously, she would have been barred from serving in what she said was a volunteer capacity. Jorrin said she did not perceive there to be anything untoward  with relatives and city employees serving on committees and commissions. She pushed for limiting the prohibition to family members living under the same roof and disallowing a council member from nominating his or her own relative to a city panel but not going beyond that. Jorrin said volunteerism would be “discouraged. We’re excluding groups from being part of our commissions. We’re welcoming one group [and]  we’re discriminating against people, taking away their right to serve. We should embrace… and encourage them to give back their time and their knowledge and help and serve on a committee.”
Council members Deirdre Bennett, Frank Navarro, David Toro and newly elected councilman Luis Gonzalez politically outmuscled Jorrin, DeLaRosa and Suchil, voting to insert into the city’s  ethics policy a prohibition on city employees and relatives of council members from sitting on city commissions and committees. The most passionate advocate of the policy change was Navarro, who asserted that Colton has built up an “unsavory reputation” of favoritism to relatives of city officials. “We need to promote a sense of honesty, integrity and transparency,” Navarro said, suggesting that the city start the reform process by preventing those with familial connections to the city’s decision makers from serving on commissions and committees.
Also contained in the ethics reform package was a prohibition on city employees serving on commissions. That, too, could be interpreted as being aimed at Gonzales. In the 1990s, the city’s public works director was John Hutton. Hutton was perceived by many as being a Gonzales ally. As a Colton resident, Hutton ran for city council and was victorious. He was thus simultaneously serving as a city staff member and council member.
Navarro hinted that the city should take the reforms even further by ending the hiring of  council members’ family members.
“For too many years the city of Colton was identified as the city where all relatives work for the city,” Navarro said in what was a veiled reference to Frank Gonzales. “There was a level of nepotism that was going on at that time that kind of put a cloud over our community.”
Gonzales told the Sentinel he saw the change in the ethics policy by the insertion of language pertaining to relatives of city council members as a gesture against him.
“Yeah, I think it was,” he said.
He said putting such restrictions in place in Colton was creating a pretty exacting standard that would not easily be adhered to.
“You have to remember that anybody who is a native of Colton probably has relatives here,” he said. “A lot of them have many relatives. I have a lot of people who are part of my family here, between me and my wife. How can you discriminate against them? I don’t think it’s right or fair. They don’t have the same restriction on business owners being on a commission but residents who live here, pay taxes and spend money here are discriminated against. And you can’t be on a commission for two years after you leave the council. You cannot place a family member on a commission. How will the family benefit? Those are volunteer positions. But a businessman can be on a commission when they could be making a decision that will benefit their business, such as tax fee structure. That is a conflict of interest. They are playing favorites. We want someone on those commissions who will fight for the citizens and do what is best for the city.”

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